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WHO are we?: the sum of our data or some other person?

Friends, strangers, corporations, organizations, and shadowy online 'entities' all "REALLY wanna know" as much about you as possible. Often more than you would ever consciously reveal.

Personal Privacy - a legal view

"The long list of developments here [i.e. capacity of powerful government-owned computer systems to scan huge amounts of information; government surveillance of any transmission that uses Web technology or airwave transmission; monetizing of personal digital information by commercial entities] demonstrates that the privacy concerns raised by [Samuel] Warren and [Louis D.] Brandeis in 1890 may still be relevant in abstract principle but quaint in their details. Technology-driven social changes promise to outstrip the capacity of the law to enforce effective controls. Perhaps most ominous is the reality that individuals lack the capacity to protect their own privacy. Probably the only way to monitor electronic surveillance and intrusion effectively is through countervailing institutions and programs that themselves require sophisticated technology, large resources, and their own technocratic personnel; of course, these programs and institutions might have much the same capacity to intrude on personal privacy as the governmental institutions that they claim to monitor. The old question "Who will watch the watchers?" has taken on new meaning and relevance. It catapults the transnational and international protection of privacy rights to the first order of importance." [p.53]

Jackson, Donald W. "Right to Privacy." Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities. Ed. C. Neal Tate. Vol. 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 47-54. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


"Personal information is routinely used for purposes other than those originally intended, in most cases without the knowledge of the people involved. This situation constitutes a significant erosion of privacy.

Although there is a wide consensus that privacy—in particular, medical privacy—has been negatively affected by Internet technology (for example, Etzioni 1999 The Limits of Privacy; Johnson 2000 Computer Ethics (3rd); Parenti 2003 The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror), there is less agreement on how to confront the situation. Corporations claim they need personal information on their customers in order to be more efficient and profitable. Government agencies claim they need access to personal information for law enforcement purposes. For some theorists, then, the issue is to find a balance between the desires of individuals to keep information about themselves private and the desires of corporations and government to freely access that information. For others this perspective is too narrow because it transforms privacy issues into the balancing of competing claims [rather than the erosion of a legal right]...

An approach increasingly followed by companies is to develop privacy policies that are made available to their customers, indicating how information about them is used and with what other organizations it will be shared, and offering certain privacy options to customers. But without appropriate legislation many are skeptical that corporations can truly police themselves."

Araya, Agustin A. "Internet." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1048-1052. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.

Privacy Policies - a sampler

Your information or data is yours, right?  Unless, of course it's not.

Given how closely linked many digital applications and activities are (you can’t register for this conference unless we can harvest your 'friends' list from Facebook!), do individuals still have the power to decide for themselves who will have knowledge of certain aspects of their lives?

For length and detail, few companies outdo Facebook's privacy policy which has six main section, each one of which is multiple screens long.   A favorite portion of the "Information we receive and how it is used" section:

"While you are allowing us to use the information we receive about you, you always own all of your information. Your trust is important to us, which is why we don't share information we receive about you with others unless we have:
  • received your permission;
  • given you notice, such as by telling you about it in this policy; or
  • removed your name and any other personally identifying information from it.

    We store data for as long as it is necessary.....Typically, information associated with your account will be kept until your account is deleted."

    Given the startling picture of the privacy policy 'landscape' painted by the recent documentary "Terms and Coditions May Apply" (see box below), statement 2 above appears more than ironic.  In mid-December, 2013, articles appeared in dozens of reputable news outlets [i.e.  Time "Facebook is Keeping Track of Every Post You Write and Don't Publish"; Slate "On Second Thought...Facebook Wants to Know Why You Didn't Publish that Status Update You Started Writing" ], detailing a paper given by Facebook's own technical staff [Das and Kramer (2013) Self-Censorship on Facebook] based on data which reasonable users would infer had been TRULY deleted when they removed text they had typed BEFORE posting.
    User/participants may feel they did not consent to participation in this particular research project (because "you always own all of your information"), but Facebook's Communications Manager, Matt Steinfeld, asserts that the existence of the Data Use Policy constitutes informed consent. [The Conversation "When did you consent to Facebook's self-censorship research?"].

Yahoo's Privacy Policy is a single document, though on multiple screens. They haven't quite hedged their bets on future use of 'your' information as completely as Facebook, but here's a representative passage:

"Yahoo’s policy is to de-identify search user log data within 18 months of collection, with exceptions to meet legal obligations. ......other types of log data (ie not relating to search) (such as ad views, ad clicks, page views and page clicks) are retained for a longer period.(unspecified)...a temporary (unspecified) copy of that information is routinely made......Please note that any information that we have copied may remain in back-up storage for some period of time (unspecified) after your deletion request."

Even the "little guys" policies imply that your information - once you interact with their website - is their information.  And that since their company is inextricably intertwined with social media, we'll blithely hand over your data to others, governed by their privacy policies (which you haven't seen yet).

"We use social media widgets and plugins so you can use social networking to share items from our site with your AOL, Facebook and Twitter accounts. These interactive mini-programs run on our site and collect your IP address, which page you are visiting on our site, and sets a cookie to enable the widget to function properly. Your interactions with these widgets are governed by the privacy policy of the company providing them, not by this Privacy Policy."   Screen 4 of the Fitbit Privacy Policy 

Terms and Conditions May Apply - the movie